Even More on Bible and Confession (Updated)

Lee critiques the way I relate the Bible and the confession in this earlier post. As I understand his post he has one major complaint with two aspects, 1) that I misrepresent the oath taken by WTS profs; 2) that ignore the fact that WTS profs do not swear allegiance to everything in the Westminster Standards but to the “system of doctrine” therein.

First, I wasn’t quoting the oath — I was summarizing it from memory. It’s been 10 years since I took it. Second, fair enough I didn’t explain how I view “system of doctrine” and that is the part of Lee’s critique to which I want to respond. I think the most salient part of Lee’s argument is this paragraph:

Were a Westminster professor to stop holding to the five points of Calvinism, or covenant theology, or infant baptism, then, yes, that professor should resign and look for a job elsewhere. But a Westminster professor who is committed to the Reformed system of doctrine should be allowed some degree of academic freedom within the realm of matters not essential to the system of doctrine.

There is a great deal embedded or implied in Lee’s (I assume partial) list of things that compose the “system of doctrine” but it shares one serious flaw that all such lists posses: it is necessarily subjective. These are the things the Lee thinks are essential but what if a WTS prof defines “system of doctrine” differently? What if, by “system of doctrine” a WTS prof has a much shorter list, say, predestination? What if justification sola gratia, sola fide weren’t on the list or what if the Reformed doctrine of worship or what if the doctrine of the covenant of works (which the Westminster Confession mentions several times but which many contemporary “Reformed” folk have felt at liberty to reject) are not included?

This is the great problem with all versions of “system” subscription to the confessions. Lee’s list would probably be quite a bit longer and more recognizably Reformed than many others but the way that Lee sets up the problem there’s no objective definition of “system.” As I point out in the forthcoming book on the role of the confessions in the church, even Charles Hodge, for the sake of preserving a “national” Presbyterian church adopted a quite minimalist definition of “system.” His plan to save the Presbyterian church evidently failed and we ended up with the fragmentation he hoped to avoid.

The system of doctrine isn’t just soteriology. If the Westminster Confession (and the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism) teaches that we may not make images of God the Son, is that not of the essence of the confession, i.e. part of the system? Is a WTS or WSC prof allowed to reject the Reformed understanding of the second commandment? I don’t think so, but on Lee’s reading of the subscription vow how could a school insist that the prof refrain from teaching the Greek Orthodox view of images? (This is not a hypothetical. Our current professor of ethics teaches the confessional view and has defended the same elegantly and eloquently but in years past we there were profs here who took a different approach). Is WCF 21 (and BC 7 and HC 96) of the system of doctrine? May we teach the Lutheran approach to worship at a Reformed seminary?

How can a seminary prepare pastors to serve Reformed congregations by teaching them to reject the teaching of the Reformed Churches, as summarized in the Reformed confessions, on any of the Ten Commandments– the fourth included? A seminary board might hear a candidates (or, if his views change a prof’s) objection to the teaching of the Reformed churches on this or that point, but the idea that a person can decide for himself what is the system of doctrine is the path of anarchy and chaos.

Now I appreciate the context in which and from which Lee writes. He worries about the confession being used as a “blunt instrument” and some might argue that he has been the recipient of such a usage of the confession. Well, okay, it can be used that way, but the abuse of the confession is no reason to marginalize the confessions in the life and teaching of an institution. In that case a school has become merely nominally Reformed.

It is useful here to remind ourselves that the confessions are not mere doctrinal summaries. We are not permitted to adopt a “sympathetically critical” stance, as one writer has put it, to the confessions. They are not mini-systematic theologies. We may be “sympathetically critical” toward Berkhof or Hodge or Calvin but not toward the confessions of the churches. The Reformed confessions summarize the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed Churches in Europe and in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Those confessions have been adopted (and modified) for use by the American Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. Those documents, as adopted and understood by the churches, have constitutional force. So it is in the seminary. The churches who send us students and rightly expect us to train their candidates for ministry according to the Word of God as confessed and understood by the Reformed Churches. They don’t expect every prof to decide for himself what constitutes the system of doctrine. There aren’t as many systems of doctrine or versions of the Reformed faith as there are profs.

As I understand the discussions at WTS/P the faculty and board are addressing issues that are of no little significance to the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. They are not addressing peripheral issues. Some of the issues touch on the reliability of God’s Word and others touch on the very nature of our righteousness with God. Yes, there is academic freedom but that freedom, especially touching Reformed theology, piety, and practice, exists within the bounds of the confession to which all of us have honestly and voluntarily subscribed our names. The system of doctrine contained in the Reformed confessions is not minimal or to be minimized. It is co-extensive with the documents themselves and that which is of their substance.

Are there things in the Reformed confessions which are not of the essence of the documents themselves? Sure. We haven’t commonly called 1-2 Chronicles “Parlipomenon” for a very long time. I doubt that the Apostle Paul wrote Hebrews, but we haven’t required anyone to hold those views in order to be regarded as subscribing the Three Forms of Unity for a very long time. Indeed, Pauline authorship of Hebrews wasn’t universally accepted in the 16th century and it was probably a mistake (as I think Calvin suggested) to include that language in the Belgic. At least, unlike the Lutherans, we don’t confess anything about the power of garlic!

What else is not of the essence of the confessions? Well, I hesitate to make a list because I don’t know that there are many things in either the Three Forms or the Westminster Standards that Reformed people ought not to be expected to believe. I don’ t know that our churches were have been in the habit of confessing things that esoteric. I do think, however, that the tension that exists, of which this discussion is a symbol, between what we confess formally and what we confess actually, is a symbol of the need for a new confession to which we can all subscribe honestly and thoroughly.

That new confession should probably look a lot like the old ones. If anything, I expect that a new confession will be expanded on the doctrine of God to address the challenges presented to the churches in the modern period (e.g. God “becoming,” Open Theism, Social Trinitarianism, God as “one person”). It will likely be expanded in Christology to address the widespread implicit denial of Christ’s true humanity. Surely there will need to be statements relative to the modern challenge to the Protestant doctrine of justification.

There will be difficulties. I guess many of them will arise when we get to Reformed ethics. I don’t see much reason to revise in substance what we confessed in earlier years. The difficulties, however, will be on two fronts. On the right there will be those who want the church to confess something about every social ill (real or imagined) under the sun. This impulse must be resisted on the ground of that the church is a spiritual institution with a spiritual mission. The church as such is not commissioned to transform the culture or to write a new cultural agenda. It is commissioned to represent the Kingdom of God on the earth, to administer Word, sacrament, and ecclesiastical discipline and to care for the material needs of its members. Thus we shall have to ask our theonomic and reconstructionist friends to take their business elsewhere. Pperhaps the Baptists will take them in? They seem to be getting into the cultural transformation biz these days.

On the other end of the spectrum, from most worship services today and the lack thereof in the evening, it is obvious that a great number of folk have effectively rejected the Reformed view of the decalogue on the second and fourth commandments. We shall have to decide as churches whether we still confess the old Reformed understanding of the second and fourth commandments. For myself, in recent years, I have come to a much deeper appreciation for the classical and confessional view of the second and fourth commandments. I have come to see how intertwined they are. I think the same is true of my colleagues. We’re all learning, in our own ways, to appreciate the richness of the Reformed understanding. Re-appropriating the Reformed view of those two commandments will, however, put us at odds with broader evangelicalism which is increasingly antinomian on those issues. We shall have to face that tension squarely and look our evangelical friends in the eyes and tell them that they are wrong, that they are disobeying the law of God and that they are buying generations of heartache.

We are tempted on the right to become “Reformed fundamentalists,” to make elements of Reformed theology, piety, and practice mere appendages to the fundamentalist agenda. On the left we are tempted to become “Reformed evangelicals,” wherein elements of Reformed theology, piety, and practice become appendages to the broader evangelical agenda. There is a third way, Reformed confessionalism: Confessing what we understand the Word to teach about theology, piety and practice and living consistently with that confession. The confessional way is not to truncate the “system of doctrine” to a subjectively determined list of bare essentials but to embrace all that we confess with heart and mouth.

UPDATE 6 March 9:25 AM: In the comments below Larry makes a very good point and prompts me to post the vow that WSC professors take:

In the presence of God, and of the Trustees and Faculty of Westminster Seminary California, I do solemnly and ex animo adopt, receive, and subscribe to the confessional standards of the seminary as the confession of my faith, or as a summary and just exhibition of that system of doctrine and religious belief, which is contained in Holy Scripture, and therein revealed by God to man for his salvation; and I do solemnly, ex animo, profess to receive the fundamental principles of the Presbyterian form of church government, as agreeable to the inspired oracles. And I do solemnly promise and engage not to inculcate or insinuate anything which shall contradict or contravene, either directly or impliedly, any element of that system of doctrine, nor to oppose any of the fundamental principles of that form of church government, while I continue as a member of the Faculty of this Seminary.

We “receive, and subscribe to the confessional standards of the seminary as the confession of my faith, or as a summary and just exhibition of that system of doctrine and religious belief, which is contained in Holy Scripture….” The confession is the summary or system of doctrine contained in Scripture. We do not subscribe the system of doctrine in the confessions. Further, we subscribe not only the Westminster Standards but also the Three Forms of Unity. Lee’s post seems to assume that there is a system within the confessions to which we subscribe but that isn’t what the vow says and it was this language that inspired my original post. I should have checked the vow again for myself. Note to self: ad fontes!

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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10 comments

  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    This is an important subject to me for a very personal reason. One month ago, I decided withdraw from my Baptist seminary. The institution has a short confessional statement which betrays a philosophy of doctrinal minimalism. No doubt there was a time at which professors actually felt constrained by its meager bounds. However, over time exceptions to the baptism clause were allowed in order to allow for non-Baptist professors. As I quickly discovered, this doctrinal statement means almost nothing today. I’m sure that if you asked, most professors would state that they do affirm the substance or system of teaching in the doctrinal statement. Yet it is apparently possible to consider the word “person” or the language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” to be peripheral to the system of doctrine. What happens when a professor sincerely thinks that “the Father God metaphor” may be inappropriate for “contemporary society”?

    As a student, I want seminary professors who teach the confession they subscribe to, even if it runs contrary to my convictions. At least I would know what I was dealing with. I moved across the country and spent a year and a half at this institution because I thought professors would teach “the vicarious death of the Lord Jesus Christ for our sins” because they confessed it. I was gravely dismayed when I discovered that most senior M.Div. students of this institution don’t know what “propitiation” is. Now my wife of 9 months and I have to radically rethink our lives yet again and deal with this mess.

    Believe me, confessional infidelity hurts real people.

  2. Longman, you will remember, posted this comment in defense of Peter Enns of WTS. The full extent of the internal conflict now raging behind closed doors with the faculty is highlighted by the ‘Saveourseminary.com’ site and supposedly well known on campus as well as in the remote parts of Eastern Europe based on the comments! Something is stirring the pot and I am inclined to think that it does have to do with the substance of what it means to be confessionally Reformed.

  3. I commend Lee for his concern to maintain God’s Word as a primary standard, but I fear he overstates the case and thus opens the door for the Confession to be used as a wax nose. The vow does *not* say, “”I do solemnly and ex animo adopt, receive, and subscribe to *the system of doctrine* contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms…” Instead, it *does* say, “I do solemnly and ex animo adopt, receive, and subscribe to *the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms* … as a summary and just exhibition of that system of doctrine and religious belief, which is contained in Holy Scripture, and therein revealed by God to man for his salvation…”

  4. Does this understanding of Question 96 of the HC truly mean that if I have any picture of Jesus that I must throw it out?

    Or is it referring to pictures in worship in particular?

  5. Scott, aren’t you concerend about the track record we’ve had since the 17th century when it comes to “improving” our standards? It seems like confessional revision historically is the fast lane toward doctrinal declension even when begun for good purposes. Warren Buffet once said that the four most expensive words for investors are “this time it’s different”. I wonder if the Oracle of Omaha’s advice doesn’t apply here?

  6. I think the alleged pictures of our Lord have to go. We cut them out of our copy of the Children’s Story Bible. Danny Hyde has written on this as has David VanDrunen. The historic Reformed understanding of the second commandment is that it forbids all representations of the Triune persons You’ll also notice that we haven’t used pictures of angels. There’s no need for them. As Bullinger said in the Second Helvetic, God the Son did not become incarnate to make work for artisans.

  7. Given the present level of intellectual rigor I’ve seen practiced at the pastoral level, among congregants, and at GA, I’m about as excited to see these guys adjudicate my scruples in accord with confessional maximalism as I am eager to have my tooth pulled without anesthesia. Present company exempted I’m sure. I’m not trying to be a jerk about this, that’s my honest opinion.

  8. You said:

    “The system of doctrine isn’t just soteriology. If the Westminster Confession (and the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism) teaches that we may not make images of God the Son, is that not of the essence of the confession, i.e. part of the system? Is a WTS or WSC prof allowed to reject the Reformed understanding of the second commandment? I don’t think so, but on Lee’s reading of the subscription vow how could a school insist that the prof refrain from teaching the Greek Orthodox view of images?”

    Mike Horton in his book “The Law of Perfect Freedom” says:

    “There is a rationale for God’s prohibition of images. God does not forbid images because He is opposed to art. In fact, Solomon’s temple was richly decorated with representations of the natural world. Rembrandt, shaped by the Reformation, celebrated everyday life and gave the natural world its own place, without requiring spiritual justification for his subjects. [Nor were all depictions of Christ and the apostles forbidden. They simply were not to be used in worship or devotion.”]

    Is Mike not allowed to teach as Westminster?

    It seems to me that there can be slight differences of opinion. No?

  9. I think Mike wrote that book before he was ordained in the URCs and I’m sure it was before he was appointed to teach at WSC.

    Like most people who’ve written as much as Mike, he has things in print that no longer represent his views — but the only problematic line is the very last line in brackets.

    He also changed his mind on the 4th commandment. The faculty and board considered these passages/questions before he was appointed.

    When he taught our ethics (Christian Life) course he defended the confessional doctrine on these two points.

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